Everything You Ever Wanted to Ask an Astronaut: Exclusive Interview With NASA Astronaut Tom Jones

By Tara MacIsaac
Tara MacIsaac
Tara MacIsaac
Tara MacIsaac is an editor and reporter who has worked on a variety of topics over the course of her ten years with The Epoch Times, including science, the environment, and local New York news. She is currently working with The Epoch Times edition based in Southern California.
November 20, 2013 Updated: February 1, 2014

Astronaut Dr. Tom D. Jones has flown on four space shuttle missions for NASA. On his last mission, he led three spacewalks. He has spent a total of 53 days in space. Jones is also a scientist (with a doctorate in planetary sciences), an author, and a pilot. He joins Epoch Times to answer some questions from our readers. 


What does an orbital sunrise look like?

TJ: One of my best memories of space flight is seeing the sun rise and set 16 times a day. It happens very rapidly, going from darkness to full daylight in just about 30 seconds, so its a lot faster than it happens on the ground.

What’s really extraordinary is the range of colors. You go from black planet and black sky … to seeing this faint glow of robin’s egg blue on the horizon. That color transforms to a golden orange as the sun comes closer to rising. You get a hint of that brilliant yellow-white as the sun actually comes up above the atmosphere. [Then] the atmosphere transforms it into rainbow colors. …

So at the end of that, you go from orange, to gold, to brilliant yellow-white, and to pure white, and then it’s so intense you have to look away. Even sunglasses won’t protect your eyes from space, there’s no atmosphere to filter that. So it literally, [and] it physically brings tears to your eyes—some of those are physical, some of those are emotional.


How does a space potty work? What happens to the waste?

TJ: So the basic idea is, you don’t have gravity making everything go where it’s supposed to in the bathroom.  Instead, the engineers have substituted moving air—so a series of fans draw urine away from your body down a hose into a storage tank, and for solid waste it just blows it away from your body into a holding canister.  

On the space station, when that canister gets full, it gets sealed and put into a trash compartment on board a disposable cargo ship. So all of that solid waste from the crew gets burned up in the atmosphere as that ship de-orbits and comes back home.

As one of my friends said, when you’re sitting in your living room, and you see that little beam of sunlight coming across the room, and you see those little moats of dust floating in the sunbeam—that’s just a gift from the astronauts.


Have you seen space junk? How bad is the problem?

TJ: Yeah one of the hazards of space flight is space junk, space debris, and there’s two sources: one is man-made stuff that gets left behind in orbit and is just drifting around, it can have the potential to run into your space ship; another source is natural debris from asteroids and comets that are whizzing through space at 40,000 or 30,000 mph.  

Even a small, sand-sized grain of debris from a piece of space junk or from a comet, if it hits you, has the kinetic energy to blow a hole, perhaps through your space suit. If it’s large enough, it can actually penetrate the cabin. So it is a serious problem.

The space-faring countries have largely agreed to make sure they don’t leave empty booster rockets behind in orbit, or dead satellites that will drift up there for decades. Now there’s a plan for each country to de-orbit their satellites when they’re done with their mission so they’ll plunge back into the atmosphere or go into a high, harmless orbit.  …

That problem is going to be more and more serious for about 10 or 20 or 30 years until that stuff starts to drift into the atmosphere and burns up, and then it will start to clear up.  But it’s a challenge for the foreseeable future.  

The module that I delivered with my crew to the space station in 2001 had debris shields [and] armor on the outside to deal with that hazard. It’s such a serious factor that we’ve got to protect the ship from it.


Did you see the movie, “Gravity?” If so, what did you think of it? Was it realistic?

TJ: It was probably the best space movie I’ve seen in 15 years going back to “Apollo 13.”  It was hyper-realistic in the way that the things looked in the movie— the earth, the spacecraft— that was all very well done in terms of accuracy.

Also the way things floated in that movie—weightless objects and tethers—behaved very much like I experienced when I was doing a space walk out there.

The space junk scenario that happens in the beginning of that movie, I think, was exaggerated. Certainly a couple of unmanned satellites have been destroyed by space junk in the past, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have a cascading storm of metal charging through space wiping out everything all at once, as happens in that movie.


Did you have much fear going into space your first time or on subsequent trips?

TJ: The fear gets left behind because you’re so focused on the work. …


With all the problems and poverty in the world, why do you feel it’s important to spend money on space travel?

TJ: Space travel is a ticket to a brighter future.  The things we learn in technology, and in engineering development, and conquering problems in space are directly fed back into solving problems on Earth.

For example, the life-support systems that support astronauts on the space station right now, ways to clean water and to recycle waste, those can be applied back on Earth. …

The money gets spent on Earth to explore space.  We’re not shipping boatloads of money into orbit, we’re spending it to train and to fund the people on earth to solve tough problems. We should always take on those tough problems, that makes our whole educational and industrial and economic system more vibrant and more vigorous.


Did you ever seen anything you couldn’t explain while in space?

TJ: I get asked about whether I’ve seen UFOs quite a bit.

I have not seen anything unusual or unexplainable in my 53 days in space,  and of course, I was looking out the window  as much as I could to look at our beautiful planet and to enjoy the view out the spacecraft windows. 

I do think there’s life elsewhere in the galaxy, there’s probably [life] elsewhere in the solar system, most probably on Mars, because Mars has a gravity and an atmosphere similar to Earth’s. Probably in its past it had a lot more warmth and a lot more moisture on the surface. We know that there’s lots of water still on Mars today in the form of ice,  so it’s logical that we should go to Mars to find out whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system.

There are a couple of other places, like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where life might find an abode as well.

If we find life somewhere else right here in our neighborhood, in the solar system, then we can imagine how many habitable planets there are in the rest of the Milky Way. I’ve mentioned 40 billion Earth-like planets we think are in the Milky Way that are in the zone where they might be not too cold, and not too hot, and just right for life.  


If you met an alien being and were given the opportunity to travel to his/her/its planet, would you go even if traveling there took a long time and you might never come back?

TJ: I’d be quite content just conversing by radio. But then I’m sure there’ll be volunteers who’ll take on a mission—a one-way mission—to go and meet another civilization. What a fantastic adventure that would be for humanity. …

Meeting aliens is a prospect I think that we’ll see in my lifetime—not, perhaps, face to face, but I think we’ll communicate via radio messages across the galaxy.  We’ve just begun to listen over the last 20 years or so for alien messages and we certainly haven’t scanned the entire Milky Way galaxy.

With 100 billion stars and probably 40 billion planets out there, we haven’t completed that search by any means. I think in my lifetime, we’ll hear messages from an intelligent civilization somewhere across the galaxy. I’d be very surprised if that didn’t happen.  …


What are your three favorite things about being in a spaceship?

TJ: The view out the windows is the number one experience that’s ever-changing, ever-beautiful, night and day. I’d stay up late past my bedtime to look out the window, because I couldn’t get enough of it during the work day.

The second experience would have been the camaraderie. I was always on a space shuttle crew of five or six people, and the friendships that you form there in preparing for and executing a mission to space are so deep, the bonds are so strong, that you can almost read the minds of your fellow crewmates.

If I can come up with a third experience, I think the best thing about a visit to space is probably that sense of freedom that you get in free fall. It almost becomes a sense that you’re Superman or that you can fly. 


How has your understanding of the universe changed since seeing it from space?

TJ: I think my realization of how my outlook has changed came at the end of my last mission in space.  

I was out on the space station doing a spacewalk, helping build that outpost putting the U.S. laboratory in place, and I had a few minutes in my space walk where I could just look around the universe from 220 miles up above the earth.

I can look down below my boots and see the earth and beautiful Pacific Ocean rolling by 200 miles below, and then up above there were these golden solar panels and black sky in broad daylight up there, and  I can look out a thousand miles into the horizon.

Tears came to my eyes, and I was feeling very small and humble, but at the same time, very lucky and privileged to get that view.

Only a few hundred humans have seen that view. I hope that greatly expands with tourism in the future. Anybody who goes to space is going to be amazed at the beauty of our universe and feel very privileged getting a peek of how vast our cosmos is.

We’re on this little oasis in space, and we’re out on the edge of the galaxy. There’s so much more to explore, and I think it’s part of our human nature to want to experience that personally, and to keep expanding, and keep exploring and pushing that frontier.

You can’t shut that off, that’s part of our humanity, to explore.  


If you could go back into space now, what’s one thing you would make sure to do?

TJ: I would hope it would be as part of a mission to visit another planet.  

I got up to the space station, but when I was growing up, my heroes were the Apollo astronauts who were landing on the moon … I’d like to be a part of that kind of visit.  

I’m an asteroid scientist, so I would love to land on a nearby asteroid and I think that’s going to be possible within 10 years.

NASA has plans to grab a nearby asteroid and bring it close to the moon so astronauts on the new Orion spaceship can see that asteroid up close and learn how to make rocket fuel from the water on those bodies.  


Some controversy has surrounded comments made by former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin about extraterrestrials possibly being within reach. Is it possible or likely that extraterrestrial presence has had an effect on NASA planning and future projects?

TJ: We have to demand very high proof of acclaim that we’ve been visited by alien civilizations, and I just don’t see that proof today. We don’t have any pieces of spacecraft, we don’t have any visual proof that’s very convincing.

With everybody walking around having cellphones, and even astronauts having cell phones and iPads in space today, the fact that we don’t have any convincing pictures of these things is telling. Even as we wish to find evidence of alien civilizations or alien life (and, again, I think that will happen), I don’t think it’s very likely that earth has been visited by an alien spacecraft.

It’s a very difficult technical thing to travel between stars, and we don’t know—under the current laws of physics—how that can happen without taking centuries to complete such a trip.  I think we’re more likely to hear radio messages from these alien civilizations in the future, and I think we ought to actively pursue trying to listen for such messages. But I don’t think we’ve seen it yet, and I don’t think that NASA has any knowledge that’s affecting their plans for the future.


How do you feel about an international collaboration in the field of science in space being used by the CIA for what is likely spying programs on citizens of Earth?

TJ: I’m not an expert on the current events, on the National Security Agency, or any U.S. intelligence agencies, but we do know that all the countries in the world do intelligence work on each other, and they listen and they gather information where they can.  

Certainly I think that using space to study developments on the earth, using reconnaissance satellites, has actually been a force for stability and for peace over the last 50 years. If countries know what’s going around the world, they won’t be surprised, and that reduces the risk of an accidental stumble into a war.


Did you ever consider exploring the deep sea instead of space? Did that comparison ever cross your mind?

TJ: I haven’t thought about the inner frontier, the deep sea, compared to the outer space frontier.

I’m fascinated by marine history and looking for shipwrecks and treasures on the ocean floor, and it is true, that we know a lot more about the surface of the moon [and] Mars, perhaps, than we do about the floor of our oceans on this planet.

But it’s a really tough technological task to build machines that can operate and to have people live for the long-run on the ocean floor.  

I would say we should be pursuing both of those frontiers.

There are new resources on the ocean floor that we can tap into, we’ll find a lot of answers to our mysteries in our past on the ocean floor, just as we’re going to find the answers to a lot of mysteries for our future out there in space.



Fast forward 50 years, what do you see in terms of the exploration of Mars?  

TJ: I think it’s quite possible we might see people going to Mars, the system orbiting Mars, or visiting the Martian moons in the 2030s. That’s probably an easier technical problem to solve than actually getting astronauts down to the surface.

It’s very tough in terms of how we can do that (get people onto the Mars surface) technically. We can land small robots on Mars right now, but we don’t know how to lower a large habitat with astronauts onto the surface. It’s a very tough technical challenge that might take us to the 2040s, for example.

I do think we’ll be having humans visit the Mars system in the 2030s and then we’ll use that outpost to look down on the planet and figure out how to use the local resources to make rocket fuel and to develop the techniques to get humans down on the surface. For a young person today who’s 10 years old, we can be talking about them being in their 30s and 40s when they can be part of the first crew to visit Mars.


How has your experience in space affected your beliefs? Has it helped you have more faith, has it made you doubt?

TJ: In responding to questions like that about religion and astronauts, I would say that I think people take their personalities and their beliefs with them when they leave Earth and go into orbit. I’m a Catholic, and so I had a very strong faith from my upbringing and experience before I left Earth.

When I got ready to go on my first trip into space, I think it was my faith that help me get over the stresses and intense pressure on my family and on me to get to space and to succeed. I can offload some of those worries and concerns and anxieties on God, and say “You can take this burden, I’m probably not strong enough to, but You can handle it for me.”

That was very helpful to me, and I think it helped my family a lot too.  

When I got to space, like I’ve mentioned before, the beauty of that experience gives you an incredible sense of being given a gift, and that was a gift from God in my view.  

I felt very close to God, and I’ve written about this in my memoirs “Skywalking,” about how my religion really helped me to appreciate my experiences up there.  It lifted that burden of anxiety and pressure and tension from my shoulders.  

It’s been a faith-confirming experience. Rather than a new discovery, it was confirming what I already believed.


Space Tourism takes space travel out of the hands of governments. Are there are any concerns about opening it up to the private sector?

TJ: Space tourism is a great development. We can imagine we’re back in the 1920s when aviation, which had only been the province of governments and used in war time, was now being commercialized into airline and carrying mail and being commercialized for the first time.

We had an explosion of air travel before World War II. Now, we have hundreds of millions of people flying ever year around the planet.

This is the same thing that’s going on in space. Making space widely available as a personal experience, and using that access to space to industrialize and build industrial parks and build an economy in space, is going to be really a key to the growth of our economic success in the 21st century.

Imagine tapping into the wealth that’s on the asteroids. We have limited resources on Earth, but there are limitless resources out in space.

Tara MacIsaac is an editor and reporter who has worked on a variety of topics over the course of her ten years with The Epoch Times, including science, the environment, and local New York news. She is currently working with The Epoch Times edition based in Southern California.